Editor's Note: The video, featuring Supervisor Grace's comments, has been edited for time and does not reflect the entirety of his comments. The full video of the April 5 Town Board meeting can be viewed on yorktownny.org. The exchange between Grace and the resident begins around 2:06:45.
YORKTOWN, N.Y. - In a move deemed by one county official as “rattling the bear’s cage,” the Yorktown Town Board will seek to repeal its local affordable housing law at its meeting this coming Tuesday.
The bear, in this case, is the federal government, which settled a 2009 lawsuit with Westchester County after the county was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center in New York. The agreement with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), signed by former Democratic County Executive Andy Spano, stipulates that the county approve funding for 750 affordable housing units in 31 municipalities by the end of 2016.
Yorktown is indeed one of those municipalities, but Supervisor Michael Grace, a Republican, said the town is under no obligation to encourage affordable housing, nonetheless require it from new developers. In fact, Grace said the 2011 local law enacted following the settlement, which requires all new developments of eight units or more to dedicate a portion as affordable housing, is an illegal “tax.”
“Zoning is concerned with area and bulk requirements, density, uses, etc.,” Grace said. “When I go over that line and I go to manage your property, I’ve overstepped the bounds of my jurisdiction as a town.”
Grace’s comments were made at a Town Board meeting earlier this month, after a resident warned the supervisor that his actions could result in a lawsuit by the federal government. The resident referred specifically to James Johnson, a court-appointed monitor overseeing compliance of the settlement.
“Is he gonna come and beat me up?” Grace asked resident Ed Ciffone. “Let him try.”
“He’s gonna beat the town up and taxpayers because you’ll be getting a suit,” Ciffone responded.
Johnson sent a letter to Grace on March 30, asking about the status of the public hearing. The same day, Johnson sent a letter to Robert Meehan, attorney for Westchester County, asking if county officials intend to “discourage or dissuade” Yorktown from repealing the 2011 law, as it would “undercut” the settlement agreement. He also inquired about how much county funding Yorktown receives.
Grace said he was not worried about Johnson’s letters.
“The bottom line is the federal government can go tell the county what to do, because the county is a party to their lawsuit. The town of Yorktown is not,” Grace said. “The federal government can’t tell me anything. There’s still municipal home rule in New York State.”
Mike Kaplowitz, Yorktown’s county legislator and chairman of the County Board, said Grace’s words and actions puzzled him. To date, he said Yorktown has been “exemplary in providing diversified housing.”
“I have no idea why anybody would purposely rattle a bear’s cage just for the sake of rattling a cage,” Kaplowitz said. “I just hope the supervisor knows what he’s doing.”
Kaplowitz, a Democrat, also said Grace is wrong in saying that Yorktown was not a party to the 2009 settlement, because the county settled “on behalf of all of the municipalities.”
“I don’t think that’s a terribly strong argument,” Kaplowitz said.
While supporting Grace’s right as town supervisor to make decisions in the best interest of his municipality, Kaplowitz said he does not understand why Grace would take such a public position against the federal government.
“I just wonder in the end if it’s going to cost taxpayers significant dollars and angst to defend that position,” Kaplowitz said.
In addition to overseeing compliance, Johnson was also tasked with publishing reports “analyzing impediments to fair housing” in Westchester, “including barriers imposed by local zoning regulations.” In those reports, Johnson noted that Yorktown “has an exemplary zoning code in terms of providing opportunities for affordable housing.” That description was “due in no small part” to the law the Town Board is now attempting to repeal, he wrote to Grace on March 30.
Grace sent a letter back to Johnson on April 15 further explaining his position. He said Yorktown has had an affordable housing law since 1988. That law, separate from the 2011 law, allows developers to request additional units of housing in consideration for creating affordable units. Grace said the 1988 law is a “bonus” for developers, while the 2011 law is a “tax.”
Both laws, while well-intentioned, are flawed, Grace wrote. Those that purchase affordable units are “trapped,” he wrote, because they are unable to sell it without a loss. As a result, “the town was obligated to subsidize sales or release units from the deed restrictions,” he wrote. Affordable units also don’t allow purchasers to “accumulate wealth in the long-term through recapturing market created equity,” Grace said.
There have been 26 affordable units created in Yorktown since 2009, with 10-12 more pending, Grace added. On top of that, Yorktown “has always sought to provide a wide-range of housing options,” he wrote.
He finished his letter telling Johnson: “If you would like to be heard, please attend our May 3, 2016, public hearing meeting.”
The May 3 meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. in Yorktown Town Hall, 363 Underhill Ave.